The First Third – Robie Park to Robinson Flat
The start (5:15 AM) was dark and dusty, per the usual. Jenn and I were in Pen 1 (you have to qualify based on strong performances the 18 months prior) and we went out behind perhaps 30-40 riders. We were able to pass a few horses on our way to Squaw, but that was where we really were able to move up. The mares trotted up 95% of the climb to Watson’s Monument. It was really impressive, they were like wind up toys. I asked a couple of hikers at the top of the monument how many horses has gone by and they said four or five. So we were in the top ten at that point.
Granite Chief – a spectacularly beautiful but treacherous portion of the ride – was smooth and simple. Czoe led through the bogs and rocks along the tiny snaking trail as if she was channeling a mountain goat, Stella in her wake. [I actually got a great GoPro video of the infamous bogs in Granite Chief, I'll post it in the next day or so.] Three other riders drafted us most of the way through this section. The mares drank well at each water stop and we got through the first vet check at Red Star – a risky spot for Czoe who is more susceptible to cold and will start to shiver if she has to stand too long in it – without a hitch. We left there jut before 9:00 AM as the fifth and sixth horses.
The mares were eager out of Red Star and we traveled fast into Robinson Flat (six miles further). Jenn was concerned about getting in ahead of the schedule we’d given our crew. We ended up only arriving about 10 minutes early (just after 9:30), but half of our crew and the majority of our equipment had been held up on the road in. We managed to cobble things together until they arrived and the vet check went smoothly.
I saw my parents and my crew pals for the first time at Robinson. It’s really a wonderful thing to come into that stop – your horse is still fresh and frisky, looking good, and everyone is lining the road cheering and then you see familiar faces, jumping into action to help you do your best. Makes me choke up a little every time.
The Second Third – Robinson Flat to Foresthill (the Canyons)
We left Robinson in fourth and fifth position (the rider who had arrived in third was pulled) with some panache – cantering out of the stop on our refreshed ponies.
The canyons, as is expected, were brutal. The surface temperature was over 100 degrees last Saturday, and typically the canyons are a good 5-10 degrees warmer. We played leapfrog through both of the first canyons with two riders – one a junior – from Palm Desert. It’s a challenge, when you are truly racing, to balance moving with speed and making sure that your horse relaxes enough to drink and that you take the time to get as much water on them as possible. I think we managed to hit it just right this time, and though the mares were tired and hot they were still energetic.
Michigan Bluff was an oasis.
We arrived there around 3:00 PM. It’s a really cool old mining town that used to be the official vet check. The check has now been moved a few miles out of town to a god-forsaken spot called Chicken Hawk, but crew can meet you at Michigan Bluff. Jen Rader (you’ll remember her as one of my crew extraordinaire) has a friend who lives there and lets us use her yard as our pit stop. The mares got water, mash, hosing and we got water and hosing (no mash, but I had a nice little can of coke).
Chicken Hawk, as I may have mentioned earlier, sucks. The trail to get there is dusty, hot and uphill. All the images of horses and riders coming into Chicken Hawk tell the story – every creature is ready to quit at that spot.
This was the first place that Stella took longer to come down that Czoe. I believe Czoe has a significant advantage as a hot weather horse. She’s grey, for starters, and really thin-skinned. I think she can just dissipate the heat better than the vast majority of horses.
We were able to get out of Chicken Hawk ahead of the two riders we’d been leapfrogging and we came into Foresthill in first and second place at 4:30 PM.
THAT was fun. Everyone cheering on the road and in we trot – the first horses to show up. Again our awesome crew was johnny on the spot and stripped the mares in record time to begin cooling them down.
Stella recovered a few minutes behind Czoe at Foresthill. This meant that Jenn could leave before me. Here’s a tough decision that comes up frequently in endurance racing. You’ve been riding with the same horse for a long time. Your horse is bonded to that horse (in this case, very). But you need to ride your own ride, especially if you’re going for gold.
The Last Third – Foresthill to the Finish
So Jenn and Czoe took off five minutes before me and Stella. Rusty and Kevin left between us.
By the time the out timer called my number to leave at 5:40 PM, Stella was pumped. She gave the town of Foresthill a real show. Trotting (trying to canter) down the middle of main street, neighing at the top of her lungs.
She sped down the first half dozen or so miles of the California Loop, all I did was sit there and steer the momentum. Then she became somewhat depressed and slowed down. We were still moving out nicely, though. As the sun faded from the sky I’d gotten a nice piece of horse back. But the leapfrog riders caught us anyway. Stella tucked in behind them, she wasn’t going to let ANY other horses out of her sight, but they were really flying and I didn’t want to continue long at that pace with a horse that had already done 70 miles.
At a water stop close to 7:00 PM we caught up with Rusty and Kevin. I quickly switched Stella to Rusty’s horse Quake and we rode together into Francisco’s, at a much more sane pace. I’d asked at the water stop and been told that Jenn was about 10 minutes ahead of me – that’s a pretty tough margin to close on technical trail like the Western States.
Francisco’s is a dangerous place to tarry, horses that have been moving at speed for 85 miles will easily cramp up if let stand very long. As soon as Stella was down, I let her grab a few more bites of food and then we headed out. She seemed content to be on her own – the leapfrog riders sped past us not long out of Francisco’s and Stella didn’t really care to keep up with them. So I sat back (figuratively, of course – please believe that at this point my equitation was simply a thing of beauty) to enjoy the last little moonlight stretch of the ride.
Around one bend in the trail, Stella suddenly threw up her head and trumpeted into the dark. Way far away, across a small dark canyon of space, I saw white though the trees. Czoe! Stella accelerated to a truly unsafe speed and whipped through a switchback to catch up with her sister. Jenn and I were probably only marginally less thrilled to see each other – it was a welcome reunion and all four of us were revitalized. Jenn said that Czoe had lost her mojo at Francisco’s and she had decided just to ride to finish.
With new-found enthusiasm we sped off into the dark, toward the river crossing. Thank god we’d caught Czoe, because Stella turned out to be a less-than-enthusiastic river forder. She’s been across that stupid river three times, but she’d much rather drink it than walk through it. We made it to the other side, however, and as we did we saw Rusty and Kevin coming down to the far bank, just behind us.
Rusty caught us on the interminable (it’s only six miles but anyone who’s ever done Tevis will tell you that it feels like 26) distance from the river to the last vet check at Lower Quarry. Eventually we came within sight of the leapfrog riders, they were riding with a flashlight (unwise and irritating) so they were painfully obvious. We stayed behind them and let them hurry into the check because we were confident they wouldn’t be able to get their horses through as quickly as we could (please note ride strategy in evidence after 14 hours in the saddle – not too shabby).
At Quarry the mares were spot on – Jenn and I vetted through first. Afterward we led the horses to some hay and Jenn said we should let them eat for a few minutes. I quietly told her that if we left we’d be in first and second and pointed out that Rusty had his saddle off (to help accelerate his horse’s recovery). Light dawned in her eyes and we quietly snuck out of the check.
As we trotted toward the Highway 49 crossing, we were giddily saying to each other how cool it was going to be, finishing first and second in Tevis. And then Rusty blasted between us. I’m not kidding. We didn’t hear him until he was immediately behind us and he yelled “Comin’ up the middle!” and Quake blew right between Stella and Czoe at a full gallop. The four of us watched them disappear into the darkness in silence. Then Jenn and I turned to each other and said “How cool! Second and third at Tevis!” It was actually really comic.
We finished on tired but good to go horses at 10:29 PM in 2nd and 3rd place.
It’s by far the greatest accomplishment of my equestrian career. I’ve been trying to soak in the feeling and write the memories to my internal hard drive as best I can. Having this blog and telling you all the story is a big part of that. I hope this has brought you along to a certain degree. It was a great ride.